“We must leave this place better than we found it,” my youth minister said as our youth group began a retreat at a lake house on loan by a parishioner. After a long weekend, you can imagine how a house full of rambunctious teenagers looked. But we remembered the exhortation and set to work with a zeal, garnering praise from our youth minister and a return invitation from the host. That experience has instilled in me a life-long practice of striving to leave any home, lodging, office, classroom, church, community entrusted to me better than I found it. What’s more, the practice of what I call “gratitude blessing” sparks unspeakable joy in myself because I helps me to reflect on the ways in which I have been touched and blessed. Moreover, doing so, even when I’d rather be doing something else, always pays large spiritual dividends. It turns out, the act of being gracious instills grace upon the giver.
The wicked tenants in Matthew 21:33-46 would have benefitted from the lesson of my youth minister and the practice of gratitude blessing. While the parable suggests the profitability of the vineyard entrusted to their care, its well-tended and fertile ground is strewn with as many wasted lives by the end of this sad tale. The owner, now bereft of faithful retainers and his own son, is very correct in his righteous indignation at the ingratitude and disrespect his tenants have shown him through their misuse of the property entrusted to them and by their treatment of his agents and his own flesh. This parable is, of course, Jesus’ not so thinly veiled censure against those persons who are stewards of God’s people. He is criticizing those who God has appointed and set apart to tend the vineyard of God, and he is building upon the teachings of the prophets who proclaimed God’s indifference to the correct worship of those who neglected the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
Yet, we should be cautious about falling into the common trap of othering the characters in Jesus’ parables by seeing ourselves outside of the narrative. As we journey, God places people in our path, angels in disguise as it were, to give us practice in gratitude blessing, of leaving those committed to our care better than we found them as a gift of gratitude to God for all of the ways we’ve been blessed. Yet, how often do we reject God’s call to show the lovingkindness of human compassion to those who need it during the week in exchange for self-satisfaction in correct ritual and sound doctrine on a Sunday morning? If this parable teaches us anything it is that the religious prosperity of well-tended ritual and well-pruned doctrine is nothing to God if their maintenance is at the cost of ignoring God’s agents— the exploited, oppressed, and suffering masses pleading silently at a firmly guarded lichgate.
As Christians, we are called to leave our world better than we found it by taking the blessings of the church beyond the walls of the sanctuary and proclaiming Christ’s Gospel of love, peace, and equality before God to the world outside. In this way, we demonstrate our love for God in a life touched and changed through the practice of genuine worship and spiritual formation. It’s a big job, but our God is a big God, and we do it, in the words of the baptismal covenant, “with God’s help.” And Jesus has provided us with the very best model to follow in accomplishing this great commission: We meet people’s basic needs, we love them radically and unconditionally, we invite them nonjudgmentally into a spiritual reunion with God, and we leave the rest to the Holy Spirit. This advent, let us recommit to imitating Christ in loving and serving God’s people, those sent to test and temper our faith, so that when Christ comes in glory, he finds the beloved community he’s left us instructions to build. May it be so.
The Rev Darcy Corbitt
Minister at All Souls' Universalist Church